Initially an essayist and poet, André Breton’s first foray into novel writing came in the form of Nadja, published in 1928. Despite an earlier scorn for this particular literary genre the novel was actually rated much more highly than his poetry. Breton is internationally considered to be the principle figure in the creation of the Surrealist movement and Nadja conforms quite clearly to his vision of Surrealism. Indeed, there are three main themes that can be identified throughout the novel: Breton’s vision of the aforementioned Surrealism, as well as those of woman and the city of Paris. I shall discuss each theme separately, firstly examining what Breton’s vision of the theme in question is and then demonstrating how Nadja specifically supports these themes.
The novel loosely narrates a period of ten days in Breton’s life between October 4 and 12, 1926 during which time he meets and gets to know a young woman, a patient of Breton’s close friend Pierre Janet who is of unsound mind. A young woman with a real name of Leona, she informs Breton however that she has assumed the name Nadja from the beginning of the Russian word for hope, “et parce que ce n’en est que le commencement,” she adds with an air of mystery (Nadja, p.75). Anna Balakian (1971) describes Nadja’s state of mind as having “let down the barriers between the rational and the irrational” and indeed at the end of the novel the heroine is incarcerated for apparent insanity. Although named after its eponymous heroine, Mary Ann Caws (1971) points out how she does not in fact appear in the novel until a third of the way in, and disappears toward the end, transforming the novel into more of a search for Breton’s self-identity than hers. Despite being married at the time of the novel and his encounter with the young mad woman, Breton saw in Nadja a possibility of a romantic adventure, “she emancipated the poet from his bonds at the very moment when he might be settling down to a conventional domesticity. She freed his imagination for the free union,” (Balakian, 1971, p.114). However, despite Nadja loving him “like the sun”, his vision of a new, exciting adventure fades away before long; his fascination and love draw to a steady nothing towards the end.
Considered to be a, if not the major founding figure of Surrealism, Breton established the movement as a progression from Dadaism and it began to gain momentum steadily from around 1920 onwards. The defining moment was probably the publication of the first Surrealist Manifesto in 1924, as transcribing his theories consolidated the movement’s ideals and Breton’s position as leader. His purpose, or at least his aim, was to create a new way of thinking that discarded the structures of traditional literature; he felt these structures to be extraordinarily limiting. Caws (1971, p.22) specifies how Breton “remained faithful to an image…of Surrealism as a total and permanent revolt against accepted judgements and habits.” Literature should not dwell on the past or box itself in with conformity but rather should be a means of transferring to paper present moments and actions, the more inconsequential the better. For Breton Surrealism was a “crystallization of his notion of life, which galvanized abstract thought into living experience and promulgated personal adventure through language” and “pure psychic automatism, by which an attempt is made to express, either verbally, in writing or in any other manner, the true functioning of thought” (Balakian, 1971, p.4, 5). To these definitions Caws (1971, p.17) adds a catalogue of elements which infuse “surrealist work in general and Breton’s work in particular.” These elements include mysticism, anti-bourgeois revolution, eroticism and reliance on the play of contraries.
Intrinsically linked with non-conformism, the Surrealists were fascinated by the unconscious, dreams, immediacy and a lack of order, anything that allowed one an altered perception of life really. Nothing demonstrates this better than a form of writing pioneered by Breton and Philippe Soupault which managed to combine these with reality: automatic writing. Breton and Soupault collaborated on a work called Les champs magnétiques, a wonderfully free piece of prose whereby thoughts and ideas were transcribed onto paper exactly as they flowed into the mind. No indication is given in the text regarding the authorial division of labour, thus offering a seamless link throughout. For Balakian (1971) it is Poisson Soluble, published four years after Les champs magnétiques that best showcased automatic writing:
Poisson soluble is… the most authentically automatic writing, apparently free of any contrivance or artifice. There seems no labor involved, as though the author in fact acted as a sort of medium between his subconscious memories and their transformation into spontaneous images whose only organization is the tripartite structure in which they seem to be automatically cast (Balakian, 1971, p.65).
The mention of other Paris surrealists and authors such as Apollinaire (p.26) and the inclusion of 44 photographs in Nadja create a small reminder of reality but otherwise the novel is without any sort of order, as Breton’s theories dictate it should be. Excerpts of Nadja were first published in the literary magazine “Littérature” in 1926, shortly after it had been written, with the full novel being published in 1928. By the time of publication Breton had polished his theories of automatic writing a little but the novel still clearly embodies Breton’s vision of Surrealism by creating an atmosphere of the mystical and mysterious through random occurrences and peculiar conversations with the young woman. For example, as Nadja and Breton stroll along the Seine, she has a vision in the water, «Cette main, cette main sur la Seine, pourquoi cette main qui flambe sur l’eau? » (p.98) which she then ponders on aloud for a while. Nadja’s unidentifiable grip on reality turns her life in to a wash of dream and hallucinatory like states; she has no sense of time or obligation; her altered, ethereal presence is the perfect personification of Surrealism:
In all these respects, Nadja serves as an indispensable introduction to the theory of Surrealism. There are, of course, variations as the movement develops, the most obvious being, perhaps, the attitude toward automatic writing and the degree of the author’s responsibility (Mary Ann Caws,1971, p.65).
Keith Aspley (19, p.128) adds to this with his comment that “Nadja incarnates the very essence of Surrealism” and this can be seen in the novel when Nadja answers Breton’s question of “Who are you?” with «Je suis l’âme errante. » (p.82).
Moving on to Breton’s vision of woman, it is important to say that although little remembered the surrealist movement did enjoy a number of acclaimed female artists and writers. Balakian (1971, p.84) comments that the Surrealists might have been “the first cénacle ever to admit them to equal rank” but this seems negligible today considering these women are usually forgotten in favour of the male counterparts to whom they were often married or attached. The role women played for the Surrealists, albeit an important and respected one, seemed almost certainly objective. First and foremost, and never more so than for Breton, woman was seen as a sexual being and a muse, a source of inspiration which was clearly manifest in the surrealist literature of the time. Balakian (1971, p.9) speaks of Breton’s “pronounced virility” and the way in which he idealized the women he loved, of which there were many. For him they were a “miracle of creation” and objects of desire and fun that should always be portrayed and seen that way, apart from his own mother whom he considered to be overly dour and for that reason could not respect her. Certainly women appear as such a prominent subject of his literature; according to Aspley (1989) L’Air de l’eau (1934) was inspired by his new bride Jacqueline Lamba, for example.
No better example can be seen of a muse than the fascinating Nadja of course, inciting Breton to turn their story into a novel despite his previous disapproval of the genre. She is young, beautiful and more fascinating than the women he is experiencing, simply because she is less tied down by society and human restrictions. “Nadja is so wonderfully free from all regard for appearance that she scorns reason and law alike,” according to Simone de Beauvoir. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nadja_%28novel%29) and Breton’s first impressions upon meeting her “Curieusement fardée, comme quelqu’un qui, ayant commencé par les yeux, n’a pas eu le temps de finir” compound this (p.72). As a surrealist muse she is perfect and as a woman with no sense of reality she has none of the female needs that could turn her into the kind of mother or wife who might “squelch” a man’s freedom, that being greatly feared by the Surrealists (http://www.hlla.com/reference/surreal.html).
The Surrealists in Breton’s sphere of influence attached great importance to conducting an endless number of experiments and meeting to openly debate, amongst other topics, human love and all it encompassed; men and women alike would discuss such themes as the erotic embrace, copulation, sexual beauty and mystery in woman, and the liberating powers of orgasm (Balakian, 1971). However, the emphasis dictated by Breton was always on heterosexual love, natural love as he felt it to be. Contrary to Proust and Gide, he was firmly against homosexuality or the exploration of it but instead focused on Woman in a sexual role and the ensuing desire: “As a surrealist, Breton maintained that desire must be infinite. He conceived of desire as the energizer of the will: hence whatever militated against sexual desire must be regarded as destructive of ultimate fulfillment” (http://www.scc.rutgers.edu/however/v1_1_1999/rbgendered.html). Balakian (1971, p.111) reveals how the significant numbers of homosexuals and misogynists at the time portrayed woman as wanton and cruel, causing misfortune and stress to man, whereas the Surrealists were led by Breton to a restoration of the themes of love to French poetry, “giving woman the sublimated role she had not played since the salutary heroines of the Middle Ages.”
As mentioned briefly already Caws (1971) considers one of the archetypal elements of Surrealism to be mysticism. For the Surrealists, woman was an ‘other worldly’ being who was “a mediator between men and the world, opening his eyes to its wonders” (Keith Aspley, 1989, p.208). Aspley echoes Simone de Beauvoir (1972) in their confirmation that Breton conflates nature and poetry with woman, with de Beauvoir referring to his vision of woman as a “mediatress” and “the key”, that is to say a go between for the world or a state of mind and anything else of a more mystical dimension.
A further notion of the Surrealists regarding the feminine aspect was that of the “femme-enfant”, “the child-woman who combines in herself opposite ages so that time “holds no sway over her” (http://www.centerforbookculture.org/context/no11/Caws.html). Many of the women who belonged to the “cénacle” were a generation younger than the male counterparts to whom they were married and thus were able to fulfill the ideal of “femme-enfant”. Nadja herself is certainly younger than Breton at the time of their meeting.
In terms of Breton’s vision of Paris it all begins with his arrival in the city in 1907 to attend the Lycée Chaptal, although as he states in Entretiens he considers 1913, the year he commences his medical studies at the Sorbonne, to be of greater significance. Breton warms slowly to the city which is to remain his home until his death in 1966; his first impressions are of streets filled with a “melancholy emptiness of the canvases of Chirico” (Balakian, 1971, p.110) and it is not until he starts reading the Symbolist poets that his impressions and imagination are fuelled (Balakian, 1971). From then on, through the medium of exploratory, random walks Breton learned to love Paris and all the chance opportunities, characters and insights into daily life that this particular city threw out:
Aleatory ambulation was a surrealist activity parallel with automatic writing. The self-revelation inherent in the chance meeting of words corresponded with the chance encounters of persons and objects in aleatory, nondirected walks through the streets of Paris; they would throw light on the nature of objective chance and create the daily miracles that contribute to the understanding of the latent magic of life. What other city, except perhaps New York, could have offered the diversity of phenomena, the enchantment, the impression of unreality within the very really, unshakably real manifestation of life in its total spectrum…Paris with its streets that flowed into each other in irrational, illogical patterns, delivering its multitude into each other’s arms (Balakian, 1971, p.109).
This method of ambulatory exploration of Paris was unique to the Surrealists; for them the city was a “dream capital”, an “urban labyrinth of memory and desire” clearly incarnated in Eugène Atget’s photographs of lonely old shop windows and the deserted streets of old Paris (http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/phsr/hd_phsr.htm). But for Breton there were still further dimensions to the city that provided “a continuity, a unity with the ages” and turned it into “a magnetic field in the physical and occult senses, with various poles towards which he was drawn” (Balakian, 1971, p.109). Once again, themes of the occult arise in much the same way as Breton’s vision of Woman but instead of woman acting as Breton’s mediator, this time it is Paris itself, being “the receptacle of events and the intimate link of his being with the objective world” (Balakian, p.109).
Of course, there is no better example of these “aleatory ambulations” than Nadja, a novel which makes countless references to walking the streets of Paris: “Nous voici, au hasard de nos pas, rue du Faubourg-Poissonnière” (p.81), stopping in cafés: “Nous convenons de nous revoir le lendemain au bar qui fait l’angle de la rue Lafayette” (p.82) and promenading by the Seine, all while getting to know one of the random characters thrown up by the city in the way that enchants Breton so greatly “Que peut-il bien passer de si extraordinaire dans ces yeux?” (p.72). Chance encounters are one of the greatest pleasures and most significant experiences that the city streets provide for Breton and an illustration of their importance is the very moment when Breton, leaves his hotel, starts off on a walk looking for a moment of convulsive beauty and happens upon Nadja, purely by chance in rue Lafayette. “je me trouvais rue Lafayette… Tout à coup, alors qu’elle est peut- être encore à dix pas de moi, venant en traverse, je vois une jeune femme” (p.72). Breton is an author of place, and Nadja is infused with constant reminders of the Paris outside and around him “Et, de ma fenêtre, aussi le crâne de Jean-Jacques Rousseau, dont la statue m’apparaissait de dos et à deux ou trois étages au dessous de moi” (p.31).
In conclusion, therefore, as the founder of Surrealism, Breton’s Nadja is a seminal text in showcasing his surrealist ideologies. Nadja herself personifies the carefree, unregimented spirit who flows freely from the conscious to the unconscious. Paris in turn is Breton’s watching ground, his playground, his theatre. It is his inspiration, an experiment, the embodiment of Surrealism in its disorder and the chance occurrences it occasions. For Breton, Nadja and Paris are nearly one and the same thing, from the point of view of their catalystic effect on the author and the way they mediate him seeing things he would normally be blind to. Finally, as a Surrealist, Breton’s vision of woman is aesthetic and spiritual. He idealizes her and uses her as a source of inspiration, a muse for daily life and his literature. Nadja is a superlative example of Surrealist literature and Breton is most definitely the leader in the field. As Caws (1971, p.118) says: “Breton, and Surrealism as he conceived it and guided it, stand out as unique examples of total involvement and complete passion.”